In the closing scenes of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Le Mépris,” Camille—played by the iconic sixties starlet Brigitte Bardot—abandons her husband for the narcissistic, almost ghoulish American film producer Jeremy Prokosch, played by Jack Palance. Bardot, in a wide-brimmed hat and large black sunglasses that recall Jackie Kennedy, displays a cold yet alluring ambivalence toward her piggish new lover. They exchange brief words, casual affections, but barely understand one another—Bardot’s character speaks no English, Palance’s hardly any French. Godard cuts back and forth between the ill-conceived new couple and Camille’s jilted screenwriter husband Paul, played by Michel Piccoli, as he reads her farewell letter. As the pair climbs into Jeremy’s fire-engine-red Alpha Romeo and peel away, the camera pans across the final words of her letter: “Je t’embrasse. Adieu. Camille.” (“I kiss you. Goodbye. Camille.”) These final, stilted words have special significance for Paul, and for Godard; they’re actions, almost stage instructions, written to a man whose job it is to write as much for motion pictures.
Godard himself wrote the film, and “Contempt,” it’s title in English, is widely regarded as the product of his own separation from French actress Anna Karina, who had starred as the female lead in several of his films up to that point. But something’s amiss. Instead of the slowly fading hum of the sports car’s accelerator, the viewer hears the sudden, pulverizing screech of the car smashing into a truck. The camera returns to the car, glimmering blood red again, pinned in the gate-like intersection of the blue-striped tankers. Our concern, naturally and immediately, is with Bardot, whose head hangs over the side door, propped against the truck’s scaffold, neck craned out like a broken Barbie with a thin trail of blood running down her back. In that moment, Godard commits a cardinal sin of storytelling: he has made the viewer fall in love with a character beyond all reason, and, with just as little reason, rips her apart like a paper doll.
But the dichotomy created in this moment—that of beauty in life contrasted with beauty in death—is hardly the most important of the concerns that Godard brought to his films during the time generally accepted as his creative peak (1959 to 1967). More to the point, “Contempt,” released in 1963, stands apart from a good portion of his other work from the period if for no other reason than it simply feels more palatable to today’s mainstream film audience. The soundtrack, scored by Georges Delerue, builds and sweeps with an epic romanticism that self-consciously apes the conventions of contemporary dramatic film. The cinematography, overseen by perennial Godard collaborator Raoul Coutard, had rarely looked more breathtaking—not only is the camera finally still (his earlier films were often shot on hand-held cameras), but the angles are expertly measured to give a messy apartment and a Mediterranean horizon the same sense of space. Vistas overflow with color. “Contempt” is a visual feast, and only one from Godard’s formidable filmography.
As one of the pioneers of the French New Wave movement, along with the likes of François Truffaut and Éric Rohmer, Godard seemed to concern himself not only with subverting ideas of genre and dramatic distance, as he did with “Contempt,” but obliterating them altogether. His films are a testament to the mercurial atmosphere of French society, whose working class was emboldened by their socialist and communist sympathies to act against a quasi-fascist military government. In films like “Breathless” and “My Life To Live,” the protagonists are young, bored, and otherwise desensitized by a culture supersaturated with highly stylized images of luxury and glamour. Godard explores this self-referential obsession with American cinema and culture, while simultaneously parodying it—several of these protagonists meet with violent, seemingly absurd, ends.
Today’s popular cinema seems to view Godard’s work with a mixture of voyeurism and cultural amnesia. His early films have the power to disorient, confuse, shock, and dazzle in a way that is totally isolated from the medium of popular cinema. Contemporary filmmakers whose work may be called “innovative” or “experimental” in passing (Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Guillermo del Toro) approach their work from the baseline that the audience must first be entertained, but never aspire to the same kind of radical evaluation of the craft that made Godard’s final peak-period film, 1967’s “Week End,” such a bizarre and troubling masterpiece. Godard, it seems, approached his work with the expectation that his work satisfy an artistic vision first and foremost. That vision grew increasingly personal and inaccessible as his career moved past the 60’s, but his belief in not only alienating the audience, but also ridiculing them, rendered some of the most miraculous and important films of the 20th century.